On The Record: Rocky Rivera
BY KALANI WILHELM / Special to the Star-Advertiser
Hip-hop has seen its share of fireworks over the last few weeks.
Action Bronson disrespected Ghostface Killah on ESPN. Meek Mill took shots at Drake’s songwriting credibility on Twitter.
Beloved females of the music industry took part in a short-lived social media sparring match when Nicki Minaj decided to direct her frustrations at Taylor Swift after Minaj felt slighted by the MTV Video Music Awards nomination committee.
BEATROCK MUSIC 5-YEAR ANNIVERSARY
Featuring Rocky Rivera and Friends
» Where: Nextdoor, 43 N. Hotel St.
Instead of getting into silly debates over nonsense, Bay Area MC Rocky Rivera, real name Kristine De Leon, has always had problems with the disfunctions of society. She airs out her displeasures with oppression, human suffering and inequality through hard-hitting, stylized rhymes.
The way Rivera sees things, parts of society as a whole could benefit from a serious reboot.
The crown jewel of the Beatrock Music camp, activist and mother spoke to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser last week from Seattle as she helped kickstart the label’s five-year anniversary Left Coast Tour and celebration of the release of her latest EP, “No De Guerre.” The five-city tour pairs awareness and empowerment with the backdrop of genuinely infectious hip-hop beats and concludes Saturday at Nextdoor. Expect Rivera and her labelmates to come out fierce with knuckles up and lyrics a-blazing.
HONOLULU STAR-ADVERTISER: What do you credit your interest in music and your development and direction as an artist to?
ROCKY RIVERA: Music and hip-hop have been culturally ingrained in me since I was born. Now that I look back, it was a natural progression, but there are so many moments where I think I’m not good enough or that I’ll never be successful.
When you see the shallowness of the industry and what sells, you either learn to play the game, or reject the game completely. As an artist, the message was always more important than the package, and my message is constantly evolving, therefore I will always continue to grow. I am becoming the artist I wished simply because there is no one else.
SA: What does “No De Guerre” mean?
RR: It means a pseudonym, or name that you take in times of war. It’s different from a nom de plume or other aliases because it is specific to a reason as to why you are changing your name. You are changing your name because you are considered a threat and must conceal your identity.
Many of my heroes took on a nom de guerre because they were considered dangerous and also integral to the movement. Simply delivering the message was enough to rally up the troops and dictate the beginning or end of a war. I believe that my music and my moniker mean that much, that things must and will change and we will be at the forefront.
SA: When you are Krishtine De Leon, what is a day like for you?
RR: When I am not making music or touring, I am a youth organizer in East Oakland for Oakland Kids First. It’s another love of mine, working with youth, relating to their struggles and organizing for change.
I’m thankful that I have a job that acknowledges who I am and what I bring to the table. My youth keep me on point and keep me young! They taught me all the new slang and songs too. I learn so much from them.
SA:You seem to be a born leader. Where did you develop that talent?
RR: No one is a born leader! This is what I tell my youth all the time, that leaders must recognize it within themselves first, then be developed by those around them who also believe in their leadership.
I like to stand up for the little guy. The underdog. I advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves and for those who are rarely seen and appreciated. When your conviction is so strong, nothing else matters. I am used to fighting for what I deserve because people are always going to give you reasons why you didn’t earn it.
SA: There are people, no matter what age, who hesitate or completely avoid speaking their mind. What advice would you give to people like that?
RR: It’s a process for everyone. Many people are told to be quiet from a young age and they have to find their medium, overcome their fears. Sometimes it’s not always good to speak your mind. You have to be strategic about who you share your views with.
But for those who are looking for their voice, you must tune everyone and everything else out and that is the real challenge.
SA: College really helped shape your identity as an artist and sparked your interest in social issues. What were you like prior to your college experience?
RR: I was definitely undeveloped and rough around the edges, like many high school girls are. I was a bookworm at a public school that did not push me intellectually. But I had a strong sense of justice and purpose, I just didn’t know what it was.
College helped me find that direction to focus my energy, to be constructive and critical of things that did not sit right with me. I was unlearning my oppressions. But before that, I learned how to survive in a city that would break you down if you weren’t tough and had a mouthpiece. I am still very much that girl that will check you if you took up too much space or disrespected because I am a lover of community and justice.
SA: You got a chance to speak to University of Hawaii students the last time you were in Honolulu. What are your main objectives when you are asked to do speaking engagements and what was your overall impression of the real Hawaii?
RR: Many of the times when I am booked by a university, I’m asked to speak alongside the department that is sponsoring the event, so it’s a package deal. Because of this, and because of the nature of my content, I fully expect to engage in conversations – academic or otherwise – about my music. I actually crave those kind of conversations because writing and recording is an isolating process. Only when I share my music can I hear feedback and constructive criticisms, which make me a better artist.
About Hawaii, I feel close to the indigenous struggle for recognition and sovereignty and I am very careful not to harm or appropriate the culture. I have a lot of friends from Kalihi, I’ll tell you that!
SA: You visited the Philippines earlier this year. What were some of the highlights?
RR: When you are part of a diaspora, a child of immigrant parents, the concept of ‘home’ is just a concept. It’s a weird feeling to have an idea of home and to feel like you never really belong or that you will never be accepted fully in one culture. But it’s also amazing to come back to your origins with your child and say, ‘This is where we come from, this is who we are.’
I was able to bring my own family back to meet my maternal relatives and see the barangay they were raised. And then I was able to see parts of the Philippines that are so beautiful and amazing as an adult. Then at the end, I was able to rock a show where I was so concerned about the language barrier, but they knew my words. It was such a rewarding and grounding trip.
SA: Opening people’s eyes to the problems of the real world is a huge strength of yours. Why do you think a big part of society would just rather not focus on positive change?
RR: Changing the world starts with changing yourself and most people don’t want to do the hard work. They want to invent things and build bridges and rocket into space and find planets, but they do not want to turn inward and undo the damage that society has done to us, especially women and people of color. This is why I consider art to be so important because it comes from within and is felt with all your emotions.
We have only begun to understand the complexity of our humanity and to be a conqueror or consumer is a very shallow way of living. We have also seen the damage that mentality has created so it’s time for a real change.
SA: With all the negativity, sadness and unrighteousness in this world, when was the last time you had a ‘This is awesome!’ moment?
RR: I’ve been seeing the backlash of Confederate flag marches, the black people bravely confronting the symbolic racism of that flag. To be targeted by the police and still stand for what you believe it in inspiring and I am in absolute solidarity. We have nothing to lose but our chains!
SA:As a child, what struggles or burdens stand out the most?
RR: I had a great childhood and supportive parents. To see them working their whole lives and not being able to retire with property or an adequate pension is really jacked up. My parents basically gave their lives to America to give us opportunity and it’s all a big farce. No one is being taken care of by the government with the taxes we pay. Anyone who contributes to the economy should be able to take care of their family and own property. The racist and elitist structure of American society makes that dream near impossible, which is why my music sounds the way it does.
SA: Will your son accompany you on the Hawaii portion of the tour?
RR:My son heard about the Hawai’i stop of the tour and asked, ‘But where am I gonna be?’ I told him L.A. and he said, ‘Oh, that’s great.’ He loved Maui on our family vacay last year and really wanted to go, but he also loves to spend summers in L.A. with his grandparents and dad’s family.
When he was in kindergarten, he kept asking me and his dad if we were married and when we were gonna get married. He was really feeling the pressure of conforming to an ideal in society and was learning about what people were supposed to do when they grow up. Now that he’s a little older, I asked him again if he really wanted us to get married, and that we would do it for him. He said, ‘No, actually I like that our family is different.’
That was it for me, I was so proud of him.
SA:What personality traits and values would you thank your parents for instilling in you?
RR: I’d like to thank my parents for giving me the freedom to develop my sense of self, not pressuring me to make them proud or doing things that were against my wishes. I want to thank them for letting me perform from a young age and gaining confidence as a young girl, which is so important in this society. And for accepting me wholly.
Kalani Wilhelm covers nightlife and music for the Pulse. Contact him via email or follow him on Twitter.